Sunday, July 24, 2016


By Tom Gumbrecht

Originally published in Horse Directory, August 2016

My horses are pleasure horses; being in their company gives me pleasure. There was a time when riding was everything, at first casual and then in local competitions. I may not have yet realized it but the picture I was attempting to paint was one of the human-horse relationship; combined training and jumpers were my medium. While I enjoyed the ribbons and still have a few hanging up, the real payoff for me was how completion validated the strength of our partnership and the effectiveness of our communication.

The author with Bella, who was once
considered aloof.
 The partnership was enhanced in the training arena and culminated in the show ring or the cross country field. But it was really created in the stable, in the day-to-day caring for my horses' basic needs and sometimes special needs as well. That's where we, human and horse alike, learned to trust one another and to develop enough faith in that trust to sometimes go against our instincts and rely totally on the other being. I found that a much harder quality to develop than some of the technical skills.

For better or worse, it seemed that the tightest bonds were created when I was caring for a horse that was ill or injured. I was actually able to feel an intense level of trust developing through the heightened level of daily handling involved in their care. It was that soul connection between friends of different species that I had sought; competition had been one means to that end, but it was becoming evident that it was not the only means.

Bella was not my horse, but I was always responsible for her. She belongs to Samantha, who had multiple successful seasons in jumpers with her when she was home in high school. Bella was a very talented horse, but she was a hot blooded Arabian mare who was concerned about everything. Samantha was one of only a few people who could ride her in competition effectively. They were both accepted at a prestigious Midwest horsey college, and Bella never really fit into their program. While the school touted the qualifications of their trainers, the reality was that these big name trainers only worked with the top human and equine athletes. The overwhelming majority was taught by other students, who in this case were well-meaning but  inexperienced in dealing with a horse like Bella. She became confused and seemed to be losing her spirit. I ended up bringing her back home before her fourth semester was finished, with a mysterious lameness that no one seemed to be able to pinpoint.

Bella had been the most aloof of all of our horses, and often resisted human attempts to show
The author learns that Bella's trust
needs to be earned and cannot be
affection. I noticed a subtle shift in attitude when I showed up at the college-town stable to bring her home, something hard to describe; a renewed intensity in her eyes perhaps, and a much more vocal greeting when she became aware of my presence. She associated me with home, it seemed, and she wanted to go home.

In the time that has passed since then, Bella retired from jumpers, but shockingly for such a hot blooded mare, became a rock solid trail mount; I could see the attentiveness in her ears and feel her confidence through reins and seat. She has had issues that sometimes affected her soundness, and at those times required a more intensive regimen of care than normal. As I have now grown to expect, during those times we have become noticeably closer. Recently she has had a few different issues which required a good bit of attention from me, and I actually became aware of an increased sense of trust and gratitude radiating from her. Bella actually is a very affectionate horse, but needs to be allowed to express it in her time and on her terms.

Nap time with Bella.
On a recent summer Sunday morning I lingered in the barn aisle after my chores were completed, drinking my coffee and reading the newspaper. I glanced up from my chair and didn't immediately see Bella, so I stood up and then realized that she had lay down in her stall in front of the fan and was taking a nap. I slid open her stall door to check on her and she raised her head up, looking slightly annoyed at the intrusion.

 Curious, I sat down next to her in the stall with my back against the wall and my legs stretched out in front of me. Her head was to my right, and to my left I kept the stall door open in case she decided to get up and I needed to quickly get out of her way. I made a couple of attempts to stroke her neck and each time she pinned her ears slightly and gave a swish of her tail. So I let her be; she was obviously not fully comfortable with the situation. I just sat there and watched her ears come forward slowly and her eyes lose some of their intensity. I sat still for five, then ten, and ultimately almost thirty minutes when she let out a low groan that might have been concerning had it not been accompanied by the lowering of her head onto my chest and her breathing her breath into mine. Before I was even able to process what had just happened, she let out a nicker that shocked me not only by its volume in my ear or the reverberation in my chest, but also by being totally unexpected.  Bella did not often nicker.

Bella enjoys helping us with our farm chores.

This horse had wanted to connect as much as I did; I needed to find the patience to let it be her idea, to earn her trust and not attempt to force it. My patience was rewarded with a clearer understanding of what it is that I seek from my relationship with our horses. I seek to connect at the heart, and once in a while if I'm ready to receive it, the gift is bestowed upon me.

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